At least five Virginia State Police chaplains have resigned after being told they must refrain from using words like "Jesus" and "Christ."
Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty, reportedly concerned about offending people of other faiths, directed the agency’s 17 chaplains to begin delivering neutral or nondenominational prayers at functions such as trooper graduation ceremonies and its annual memorial service for fallen officers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch says.
"The department recognizes the importance of a state government agency to be inclusive and respectful of the varied ethnicities, cultures and beliefs of our employees, their families and citizens at large," Flaherty said in a statement.
Flaherty cited as justification a recent ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which upheld a Fredericksburg City Council ban on sectarian prayer. Flaherty’s office denied that Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine’s administration was behind the decision.
Five members of the state police’s 29-year-old chaplaincy corps have quit their ministries in protest. All of them being sworn officers, they remain on staff as such.
Rex Carter, one of the resigning chaplains, argued he should have the right to pray "how I believe, regardless of whether somebody agrees or not," saying "There's a fine line -- but it's a hard line -- between an individual's right to pray versus what is considered state-sponsored speech."
Sgt. Glenn Phillips, another department chaplain, said the chaplaincy was never meant to be a pulpit to "to further fight the government as it encroaches on religion."
"Nobody's been asked to deny their faith or anything like that," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch."I'm a Christian, and I don't think that Jesus would look at this as necessarily a good thing."
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller noted that the policy does not prohibit chaplains from making religious references at private ceremonies or in individual counseling.
Emphasizing that the policy change is not aimed at Christianity, she said the department has not received any complaints about religious references.
Virginia General Assembly Delegate Charles W. Carrico, a former state trooper, is protesting the decision.
"You don't check your religious beliefs at the door just because you're hired by the state and are a member of the department," he said, characterizing the decision as the "separation of Jesus and state."
"What we have here is an attack on the name of Jesus, on the name of Christ. And I'm not going to sit back and just let it happen," Carrico continued, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.
Carrico stated he intends to introduce legislation to address the issue.